Beyond rain barrels: What this legislative session did — and didn’t do — for water

Authorizing the use of rain barrels wasn’t the only major water decision to come out of the 2016 legislative session, but no matter your views on the issue, it was clearly this session’s shiny new dime.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 16-1005 into law on May 12, the day after the session ended.

The new law allows most Colorado households to collect rain coming off of rooftops into two 55-gallon rain barrels. That water can only be applied to outdoor use, such as watering lawns and gardens.

Rain barrel use has actually been legal for some Coloradans since 2009, primarily for those who don’t have well access. But the ability for urban dwellers to collect rain has been a controversial issue, blocked primarily by rural lawmakers and their supporters who fear such use will interfere with the state’s prior appropriation doctrine. The implication is that rainwater, which drains into ground water basins along the Front Range, for example, belongs to those who hold first claim on water rights and who use that groundwater for irrigation purposes.

Conservation groups have argued that allowing municipal residents to collect rainwater will help educate them about the need to conserve water. Such education could even help with the implementation of Hickenlooper’s statewide water plan, which includes a lofty water conservation goal of 400,000 acre-feet.

City slickers can start collecting rainwater on August 10.

With the exception of the rain barrel bill, water issues took something of a back seat in 2016. The interim water resources review committee, which typically sponsors the year’s major water bills, had nothing for lawmakers to consider in 2016.

But that didn’t stop lawmakers from coming up with their own water ideas.

On Thursday, Hickenlooper signed HB 1256, which tasks the Colorado Water Conservation Board with studying the South Platte River for possibilities on water storage.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Brown, a Republican from the southwestern town of Ignacio, tackles the issue of trying to hang onto millions of acre-feet of water that annually leaves Colorado via the South Platte and heads into Nebraska. Water experts have long noted that Colorado sends more water into Nebraska from the South Platte than is required by a nearly century-old water compact.

But why would a Western Slope lawmaker, whose district is the furthest away from the South Platte, take an interest in a South Platte reservoir? It’s all about protecting Western Slope water, Brown said.

Brown told this reporter that the state water plan envisions more water flowing from the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains. At the same time, Colorado River water, the main body of water on the Western Slope, is needed to boost Lake Powell water levels, which are currently at historic lows. That lake provides water to Arizona, Nevada, California which is coming out of a record drought and even Mexico, under water compacts. “We just don’t have the water” to send to the Eastern Plains, Brown said.

He also pointed out that most of the water that will fill an expanded Gross Reservoir in Boulder and Glade Reservoir in Larimer County comes from the Western Slope. “I support all of that, but I also believe we shouldn’t let the South Platte River water leave the state,” Brown said.

Water storage along the South Platte would solve this dilemma. The idea dates back at least 50 years, when a reservoir was proposed for The Narrows, an area along the South Platte near Fort Morgan. That idea was ultimately vetoed by President Jimmy Carter, and since then, some of the land intended for the project has been developed.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling marshaled the storage bill through the Senate. “I think we will see out of this no more talk, no more hypothetical locations we can pursue. We have places that could be options, such as Pawnee Pass between Kersey and Wiggins, or The Narrows, which would be the big project. Small projects also could be necessary. But this study will set those locations.”

Added Sonnenberg, “All of this is part of the grand scheme to keep Colorado’s water in Colorado.”

Storage on the South Platte will also help protect endangered species and promote recreational use, Brown said. Coming up with the money for storage will be tough, he said, and it won’t happen overnight. It will take years of planning, but Brown is hoping that process can be speeded up — something another one of this year’s bills could help with.

On June 8, Hickenlooper signed a bill authorizing a position that would work on one of the biggest problems with new water storage projects: local, state and federal permitting.  That new law, also carried by Sonnenberg, tasks a gubernatorial appointee with coordinating the permitting process.

Lawmakers did reject one proposal tied to the state water plan. That bill, HB 1313, would have asked local communities to incorporate water conservation and water management goals from the state water plan into their own master plans. It would have also asked cities and towns to require developers to incorporate some of those conservation and management goals into their development plans as a condition for approval.

The bill had bipartisan sponsorship throughout its trip through the House, including favorable votes from 10 mostly-rural Republican lawmakers and the entire Democratic caucus of 34. Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan was among those 10 Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of it.

Environmental groups like Conservation Colorado and Trout Unlimited backed the bill, as did Northern Water and Adams County. But other county governments across the state opposed the bill and some lawmakers — even those who voted for it — said the measure was unnecessary and that county governments didn’t need the state’s permission. Republican sponsor Rep. Don Coram of Montrose acknowledged that some counties already do what’s included in the bill, but wanted the General Assembly to encourage more of it.

The measure met its match in the Senate, where it was assigned to the Senate’s “kill committee:” State, Veterans and Military Affairs. There, with Sonnenberg in opposition, it lost on a 3-2 vote.

The interim water resources review committee, of which Becker and Sonnenberg are both members, begins its summer schedule on June 20 with a tour of the Gunnison basin.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr 

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


  1. Does anyone really believe some farmer in Nebraska or Kansas believes there is a difference between 100, 10000 or 1,000,000 rain barrels or a 1000 acre reservoir? All he cares about is that the compact that Colorado signed back in the 1940s appropriating over 70% of the water in the South Platte to Nebraska and Kansas is lived up to by Colorado. Rain barrels are an illegal appropriation of water plain and simple. You can expect a federal action on this in the near future. What did we expect them [Nebraska and Kansas] to do? Say, aw shucks that’s OK, steal our water.

Comments are closed.